So you rented a camper van, mapped out your route, and picked out your campgrounds. The only thing left to plan is what to eat! Unlike most European vacations, where you can rely on there being a restaurant or grocery store nearby at all times, Iceland is different.
You’ll be out in the wilderness for a lot of your trip. Services will be far and few between. So it’s a smart idea to come up with a meal plan, load up on supplies, and cook for yourself. Besides, cooking is half the fun of camping!
Cooking In vs Eating Out
Eating out in Iceland can get very expensive, very quickly. When you hear people say that “food is expensive in Iceland”, they are usually talking about eating out at restaurants. However, buying food at the grocery store is actually quite comparable to the US.
If you’re traveling via camper van, we highly recommend you make use of your van’s cooking accommodations. By cooking most of your meals, you are able to be strategic about when and where you want to go out for a meal. Plus, being able to eat without having to search out a restaurant is one of the main perks of renting a camper van.
Camper Van Cooking Basics
As of the writing of the article, we live full-time in our own DIY camper van in the United States. So, we knew a little bit about how to cook inside a vehicle before we showed up in Iceland. But for those of you without any experience cooking in a van, here are a few of our tips.
Meal Plan: Whether you are exploring Iceland for 2 days or 2 weeks, we would highly recommend making a meal plan prior to (or during) your visit to the grocery store. The refrigerators and pantry drawers inside of these camper vans are small. There isn’t a lot of space for “just in case” staples. So make a plan, buy what you need, and hopefully, there won’t be too much waste.
Stock up on Road Trip Snacks: This is an area in which we could have done a much better job. Iceland is very large and very spread out, so you will be doing a lot of driving between locations. Having some good road trip snacks on hand is really nice for in between meals.
Reduce Dishes: Washing dishes in a van can be a real chore. The sink is small, there isn’t any hot water, and it’s a challenge to not get everything around you wet. Your best bet is to reduce the number of dishes you use. We cooked a lot of “one-pot” meals and no-cook breakfasts/lunches to cut down on dishes. Most campgrounds have dishwashing facilities, so if we wanted to make something more elaborate, we waited until we were at a campground.
No-Cook Breakfasts / Lunches: Not only do no-cook meals reduce the number of dishes you need to wash, but they are quicker than cooking a hot meal. This is great for early morning starts or for days when there’s just too much to do.
Discard Excess Packaging: Once you bring your groceries back to your van, go through your items and discard any excess packaging. Plastic wraps, boxes, etc. If it doesn’t need to be in a package, remove it. The benefits here are twofold: 1.) You can store more food in your small refrigerator 2.) There is a trash can right in front of the grocery store. This is the easiest, most convenient time to get rid of your trash. Otherwise, you will have to store it in the van until you find another trash can.
Take Note of the Wind: Iceland is unbelievably windy. Being able to cook inside your vehicle is one of the biggest perks of renting a camper van. On very windy (or rainy) days, you will probably want to cook inside the van. You can crack the front windows slightly to let a little airflow through, which will help cut down on condensation.
On milder days it is possible to cook outside, however, you will want to position your van so it is blocking the everpresent breeze – if possible.
There are a lot of places to buy groceries in Iceland. Here is a list of some of the more common places you’ll see during your travels.
Bonus Grocery: This was the grocery store where we did 90% of our shopping. It has somewhat of a cult following among US travelers in Iceland. It offers a wide selection of relatively cheap stables and has a crazy drunken pig logo. They had a pretty sizable meats section, however, their fresh produce was a little lacking – understandable for an island nation just south of the Arctic Circle! You can get everything you need at a Bonus.
Kronan Grocery: Another budget-friendly grocery store, similar in size and selection to Bonus.
Netto Supermarkets: A true supermarket that sells more than just food, it’s another budget-friendly option with a wide selection of products.
Hagkaup Supermarkets: Open 24 hours a day, this megastore sells just about everything. However, their groceries are a lot more expensive than other stores.
Kjarval Grocery: This chain has a variety of small stores in the smaller towns throughout the country. We stopped at the one in Vik (basically the only grocery store in town). It had all the essentials and nice store layout, but the prices were higher and they lacked a lot of selection.
Duty-Free Shop in Keflavik Airpot: If you want to drink alcohol in Iceland, this is by far the cheapest option. Where is it? Don’t worry, they basically force all international arrivals to Iceland to walk through the duty-free shop to get into the country, so you can’t miss it!
Things to Know About Buying Groceries In Iceland
Bring a Jacket: The meat, dairy, and produce sections are usually housed within their own refrigerated rooms. So if you’re taking your time, trying to translate ingredients, and price comparing, you can get really cold before you know it.
Pay with a Chipped Credit Card: Just like everywhere else in Iceland, you can pay for groceries with a chipped credit card. You don’t need a pin (like at gas stations), but they will ask for your signature.
You Will Need To Buy a Bag (or bring your own): Iceland recently passed a ban on single-use plastic grocery bags, so you will need to purchase one or bring your own. At Bonus, they sold mid-weight reusable plastic bags that we recycled throughout the trip as a laundry bag, dirty shoe bag, and ultimately as a trash bag. They also sell a heavy-duty reusable bag.
Self-Check Out Counter: We only came across a few self-checkout machines at the grocery stores we visited, but they all had English as a language option. So don’t fret.
Must-Try Foods in Iceland
Pylsur (Hot Dogs): Forget the over-hyped fermented shark and lamb head, the true national food of Iceland is the humble hot dog. Judging by the fact there was an entire wall dedicated to hot dogs in every grocery store we visited, it’s safe to assume hots dogs have a pretty big following in Iceland. And we soon found out why.
These aren’t your standard American all-beef franks. Icelandic hot dogs are made mostly from lamb with a blend of beef and pork, giving them a robust and dynamic flavor. They also come in a natural casing that delivers a very satisfying snap with each bite. They are worlds better than American hot dogs and are definitely worth a try.
Pylsusinnep (Hot Dog Sauce): This sweet brown mustard is a staple condiment of Icelandic hot dogs. If you’re getting hot dogs, then you need to pick up some Pylsusinnep. But it also tastes great on sandwiches or mixed together with scrambled eggs.
Remoulade: Another must-try hot dog condiment with a bunch of different applications. It’s actually a French-style tartar sauce, that is most commonly featured in Louisiana style cooking in the US. Yes, it tastes great on a hot dog, but it also goes great with any seafood or red meat.
Cronions: These crunchy onions were the ultimate find of the trip for us. They make everything taste better. Hot dogs, pasta, scrambled eggs, salmon. Basically anything we cooked in the van, we found a way to incorporate cronions into the dish.
Skyr: A distinct Icelandic dairy product, skyr is similar in consistency and taste to Greek yogurt (but in our opinion way better). It’s so rich and so creamy, you can’t really even compare. Skyr is available in the US, but it is considered a specialty item and priced accordingly. In Iceland, however, skyr is unbelievably cheap. So we ate it constantly. For breakfast, as a snack, after lunch, and even as a dessert (Isey makes a creme brulee flavored skyr).
Kleina/Kleinur: This is a popular pastry made of dough with a hint of cardamom that has been tied into a knot and fried. These are perfect alongside a midmorning coffee!
Rúgbrauð: This is a dense rye bread that was traditionally baked in a container by burying it near a hot spring. Now it’s baked using more conventional methods, but if you come across “hverabrauð”, you’ll know it’s the real deal.
Ready-Made Salads & Dips: Bonus had an entire section dedicated to tubs of ready-made salads and dips. We picked up tuna salad, spicy tuna salad, turmeric hummus, and a few others. These were perfect for spreading on bread and turning into a quick sandwich for lunch.
Smjor (Icelandic butter): The Icelandic cow – originally brought over from Norway – has been genetically isolated for over a thousand years. The best way to appreciate its uniqueness is to try the local smjor.